Swope Studios

Camera Over Hollywood
John Swope

John Swope
Norma Shearer and Jimmy Stewart in boat

The camera looks down, not from any great height but to see feet down on the ground. Hollywood has that, the dream factory wears glasses to bed, Wellman’s A Star Is Born was filmed during Swope’s stay. Chaplin took his camera around the set decades before.

But there is a sense in which even this is part of the act. Swope as Harpo plays the drum in costume next to Henry Fonda and James Stewart as Groucho and Chico, drummer and fifer (with a head wound), he is on friendly terms with the best of Hollywood, there is no outsider’s view.

The profession cannot be reduced, W.C. Fields and Mack Sennett at the Oscars are themselves and no impostors. Norma Shearer without her mask next to Stewart in a little rowboat on sky-reflective water is the artist self-contained.

Swope photographs sets inside and out not from any useful angle but with a theatrical sense of their usefulness. Ann Rutherford posing with a canine holding a feline in a basket is seen next to a reflector on the lawn and a photographer shooting the layout, the performers are seen at work, not in it, like Reginald Gardiner, Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy on the set.

Swope’s resources are abundantly varied, Cartier-Bresson instantaneity and Kertész intimacy and Halsman setups and Karsh portraiture are in his line, the main thing is to know the place and see it for the first time.